In April this year, I gave a talk about Talking Birds’ socially engaged mobile project space, The Cart, at the University of Warwick. The Cart is essentially a project about conversation, about making a temporary space for people to get together and have a conversation they would not otherwise have had. As a result of the talk I gave, I subsequently had quite a few conversations I would not otherwise have had! One of these was with Alastair Smith, who convenes the Local Sustainable Development module, which is part of the new B.A.Sc. degree in Global Sustainable Development course at the university and, to cut a long story short, we agreed that I would conduct a walking tour around Coventry for his students, to give them a flavour of the city’s rich social/economic and cultural history.
For me, the drive to do this comes from living on a street full of students and seeing how little they are equipped to engage with this city, because less of the things that make a particular place unique are obvious nowadays. I need to unpack this, as I know it’s a little woolly so here goes…
The way most of us live now is less locally focused and, while global connection brings many benefits, there are also significant downsides. I think one’s sense of place, and consequently of self, is developed by making meaningful connections. Physically, through connecting with the geography, nature and weather of a place, and socially, through connecting with different groups of people – neighbours, work/study fellows, people who partake of the same leisure pursuits as you (in other words, the various communities you are a part of, which are generally geographically or interest based – in my case the arts scene, the school gates etc).
When we can live and work literally anywhere: when the same chain stores, restaurants and takeaways are on every high street and we can get our shopping delivered to our door, maybe we lose the drive to develop a sense of place: insofar as we understand the world, everywhere is basically the same, give or take a few minor variations. In some ways perhaps this doesn’t matter, but I think that actually it does. It *really* does.
I know that I am someone who understands the place where I am by walking it, by looking, by finding out, by listening to its stories – and I’ve observed that, when others perform these actions, they also gain a deeper understanding of the place and of themselves in relation to it. And I think this understanding is a key influencer of behaviour and belonging. When we feel that we belong somewhere (geographically and/or socially), we feel an obligation to take a part in the things that go on there, and to make behavioural choices that support these: on a local level this may mean that we don’t want our street to look a mess and so we make sure we put our bins out on the correct day; or on a global level, we may want to minimise our personal contribution to climate change and cycle instead of using a car.
For students moving to a new city, all these relationships are to be negotiated – and often a particular relationship with the place (I mean the city here, rather than the institution) is not cultivated. I don’t think there is any one reason for this, but I suspect that a perfect storm of factors (social, geographic, economic, emotional) conspire and if there is no stand-out reason to understand the distinctive character of the place, the city, where you study – then the sense of place, the sense of belonging to somewhere wider than the institution, doesn’t develop and there is no real reason why you would want to make that (time, economic, emotional) investment and commit to that place, that city, after graduation. I know that Universities across the UK are waking up to this and examining the civic responsibility of the institution now, but what about the civic responsibility of the arts? And of artists? And of artists who are also residents? What part do we have to play in helping students to develop and understand their connection to the place and where they belong in the wider society?
As many have pointed out before, Coventry – arguably more than anywhere else – doesn’t offer itself up on a plate. You need a little persistence. You need to dig around a bit and find things out. And the city has a graduate retention problem. These two things are probably not unrelated.
It’s this line of thought that led me to offer the walking tour to the students, as something small, but potentially impactful that I could do. A way to impart some of my 25 years worth of interesting gobbets of information – the stuff that got me hooked on this city – to a cohort of young and enthusiastic people coming to study Global Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick. Give them a sense of place and get them hooked on Coventry. My reasoning is that, in choosing that course, they are surely people who want to make a difference, who see themselves as changemakers, who have an interest in social justice – and these are the people Coventry needs to impress and beguile. These are the people we want to remain in the city, to make their lives here.
I wanted to inspire these young people with the stories that inspire me – stories of Coventry’s proud tradition of social justice and innovation, its commitment to youth, its progressive attitude, its innovation, its creativity, its quiet and dogged pursuit of what’s right, its modesty, its possibility…
So I showed them the place the river peeks from beneath the concrete, and the backs of the medieval houses; I told them about the paths of bones across the marsh to support those making the city wall; I told them about Gibson and Tennant’s dash to Cumbria for Westmorland slate and about the phoenix sketched on the back of a envelope; I told them about the city model ultimatum to government; about the City Architects Department being the place all the bright young things wanted to be post-war; about how the ideas inspired by Europe and developed in Coventry spread across the country as people moved on; I told them about pedestrianisation in the city of the car; about a freed slave managing a theatre; about double-doored powder rooms in the ballroom proving handy for losing an unwanted date; about the democracy of classless restaurants in theatres and above swimming pools; about how bankruptcy and commercial pressures can devastate well-designed public spaces and about how important it is to understand why something is as it is before you change it; I told them about a city founded on the belief that everyone deserves beauty, modernity and cleanliness; about a daring and spectacular tightrope walk; about electronic music pioneers; about measures to tackle health and food injustices; about an edible campus, a Marmot city, vegan cafes, arts, culture, mental health, wellbeing; about an Olympic Pool with sunbathing decks and sand-filtered water so clean you can see from one end to the other; about a courtyard of experimental brickwork; a guildhall with a tapestry that inspired a certain Warwickshire playwright; about a tiled mural map with dinosaurs; about twin cities and gifts of timber; about the first civic post-war theatre, and about inventing a way for young people to ask philosophical questions and come to understand the world through acting it for themselves; about a mini stately home on the top of a newspaper building; about criminals buried vertically headfirst; about the hopes for a City of Culture; and I told them lots about the amazing energy and creativity of this city’s people – particularly its independent artists and producers who continually explore this city, and question it, challenging audiences to interrogate, understand and, ultimately perhaps, love it.
I know I opened some eyes and altered some opinions with this walking tour, but only time will tell whether it truly had its desired effect.
- If you want to get a flavour of the sorts of places I was recommending, try this article.
- There is also an engagement page for the Local Sustainable Development module, with a bibliography of sources about the city and student work will be posted there.